Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Rand Paul, the Republican Presidential Nomination and Delegate Selection Rules

Jim Rutenberg has a look in today's New York Times Magazine at one advantage the Rand Paul campaign may have in a protracted race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination: its knowledge of and ability to strategize about the Republican National Committee's intricate delegate selection rules. As Rutenberg describes it in one segment:
The process by which presidential candidates are nominated is, at its most basic level, a race toward a magic number of party delegates — in the Republican Party’s case, 1,235 required to win — amassed state by state and, in some cases, congressional district by congressional district. Getting them depends not only on the speechifying, door-to-door vote-hunting and million-dollar ad buys we associate with campaigning, but also on a bewildering array of procedural minutia: obscure national bylaws that overlay a mind-bending patchwork of local rules that can vary drastically from state to state, some of which award delegates not based on votes received in primary elections but on back-room wrangling at local party conventions and meetings that take place weeks or even months after votes are cast.
FHQ has a few thoughts on this and Rand Paul campaign strategizing in general. First, as Rutenberg points out later in the article, the RNC has tightened its rules since 2012. The objective was to cut down in 2016 on some of (what the national party viewed as) the shenanigans the Ron Paul campaign and its supporters pulled in the last campaign. This affects three areas of the nomination process for the 2016 cycle. First, there are no more non-binding caucuses. Any statewide presidential preference vote -- like a vote at precinct caucuses -- now has to guide the delegate allocation in states like Iowa or Minnesota or Maine (among others).1 That means that even if there is "back-room wrangling at local party conventions and meetings" later in the course of the caucuses/convention sequence, it will only affect who a delegate is, not to whom that delegate is bound. The preferences expressed in the first, statewide step -- the precinct caucuses -- is the one that guides subsequent steps. While the selection of delegates is still open in district conventions and at the state convention, the allocation part is mostly done after that first step. [FHQ will revisit that "mostly" momentarily.]

To make sure that the binds created during the primary or first step caucuses phase stick, the RNC also altered the process voting on the nomination at the convention. These are the other two ways in which the national party tightened its rules for 2016. First, even if a delegate bound to, say, Mitt Romney preferred Ron Paul, said delegate could not vote for Ron Paul at the convention in 2016. Rule 16(a)(2) directs the secretary of the (national) convention to "faithfully announce and record each delegate's vote in accordance with the delegate's obligation under these rules, state law or state party rules." If a candidate is bound, then, the secretary of the convention will recognize the binding rather than the delegate's preference if there is a conflict. What happens in those precinct caucuses is the guide.

That rules change is further buttressed by the increased threshold a candidate must meet to have his or her name placed in nomination. According to Rule 40, a candidate must in 2016 control delegations from eight states rather than the five that were required in 2012 to be formally nominated.

Together, those three changes makes any "wrangling" less meaningful when it comes to the nomination part of the national convention. Delegates can also affect planks on the platform and other party business, but the nomination is the big ticket item for the convention. And the RNC has closed a number of loopholes.

FHQ spoke with Rutenberg about this story, and we raised and discussed the change that closed off the non-binding caucuses loophole. One other factor we also chatted about that did not make the article was what would happens when candidates who have won some delegates withdraw from the race. What happens to those delegates? Would they become a set of free agent delegates possibly circumventing the prohibition on non-binding caucuses through a side door? The quick answer is yes in theory. However, there is a bit of nuance to this. Here is where that "mostly" from before reenters the discussion.

The interesting thing is that states and Republican state parties have in some cases been reading that change to the binding rules quite literally. That is why Iowa Republicans were concerned about the Ames Straw Poll. There was some worry that that would qualify as the first, statewide vote and thus delegates would have to be bound based on its results. Other comments from people within state parties have seemingly indicated that the thinking is delegates are bound based on the results of the primary or caucuses period. That there are no exceptions even for the delegates bound to candidates no longer in the race in April, much less at the July convention. In other words, if Carly Fiorina were to win delegates in Iowa but withdrew after the SEC primary on March 1, those Iowa delegates would still be bound to her at the national convention. FHQ does not read the RNC rules that way, and I'm willing to bet that Rand Paul and his campaign are not either. That is particularly true if Fiorina in this example were to release her Iowa delegates. They would become free agent delegate slots.

All of this does seem to open the door to some wild possibilities. On the one hand, non-binding caucuses are out, but on the other 2016 offers this supposedly wide open race for the Republican nomination. That means all those candidates could win some delegates and that even if some of those candidates withdraw, their delegates could be meaningful in helping to champion a candidate who does not hold the delegate lead based on the delegates he or she won alone. To make this clearer, Rand Paul, for instance, could wrangle to control those released delegate slots in the same district and state conventions his father's campaign exploited in 2012 to overcome a 2016 deficit in the delegate count to hypothetical leader, Jeb Bush. I mean, come on. This sounds like a dream come true for the three of us rules nerds out there wandering the wilderness, fingers crossed, hoping for just such a scenario.

Yet, here comes FHQ to throw some cold water on that notion. All this does is raise the importance of the delegate rules at both the state and national level. And it is those very rules that are very likely to limit the number of delegates who are free agents in the first place. The total number of delegate slots allocated to one candidate but filled after released in the selection process by a delegate aligned with another candidate is likely to be small. Just how small depends on a couple of factors.

First, it bears repeating that the earliest states -- carve-outs excluded -- have to allocate their delegates to candidates in a proportional manner. That said, part of the proportionality rules allow state parties to set a minimum threshold of the vote that a candidate must receive in order to be allocated any delegates at the congressional district or statewide level. That threshold can be set as high as 20% (Rule 16(c)(3)(i)). 20% is a high bar in a multi-candidate race. That means that losing candidates -- already more likely to withdraw -- are even less likely to win any delegate slots that can be exploited by other surviving candidates down the road in the process.

Secondly, the field is going to winnow the deeper the nomination process gets into the calendar. Those candidates most likely to drop out are the candidates who may be shut out of delegates within the proportionality window (March 1-14; again, the carve-outs are excluded). That means that a significantly winnowed field (two or maybe three viable candidates if history is our guide) and the end of the proportionality window are going to hit nearly simultaneously. And that translates to there likely being many fewer released delegate slots to sweep up from the beginning stages of the race.

There may be some free agent delegates in the 2016 Republican nomination process, but they are likely to be more like John Edwards' delegates in the 2008 Democratic nomination race: free to choose from among the remaining candidates but very unlikely to be decisive. Chaos could happen, but history (with an admittedly small N) and the rules suggest otherwise.

And if chaos does occur, I hope those 2012 Santorum folks now on Rand Paul's 2016 team don't count delegates like this.

1 Minnesota Republicans are in pursuit of a waiver from the Republican National Committee to continue the caucuses/convention practice as they have in the past.

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